January 5, 2006
Food for Thought
The only thing worse than going to most luncheons is having to write about them -- blow-by-blows of well-meaning, well-deserved appreciations and thank yous and speeches that go on too long.
So on my way over to the Luxe Summit Hotel in Bel-Air last month I decided I wasn't going to write more than a brief about this year's Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educators Awards luncheon.
But here's the thing: This event really is one of the most inspiring afternoons on the local Jewish calendar.
Maybe it's because teachers are so notoriously underappreciated. And the event, which focuses solely on teachers and principals in our day schools, makes everyone in the room want to pump their arms and let out a big "Woo-hoo!"
The luncheon is well produced, featuring videos of the surprised recipients learning of the honor during assemblies at their own schools. These films of celebrating, table-banging kids -- and shocked and teary-eyed teachers, getting drawn out hugs from colleagues -- are the centerpiece of the luncheon.
And then after lunch we got to hear from the five recipients themselves; each received a $10,000 prize. In their allotted two minutes they did what they do so well: teach.
Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, principal of Yeshiva Rav Isaacson-Torath Emeth Academy, told about the troublemaker kid who got called into the principal's office for the 50 billionth time. But this time, after the same lecture, he came out, changed his ways and within months became a model student.
What did it?
During the principal's ranting and raving, the secretary buzzed in with a phone call. And the principal told her, "Sorry, I'm meeting with somebody very important now. I'll have to call back."
Somebody important. That's all the kid heard.
Next up was Vivian Levy, who has taught third grade at Sinai Akiba Academy for 30 years. She told of the bearded fellow who approached her recently and said, "Don't you remember me?"
And then she did. He was the kid who couldn't sit still, whose hyperactivity had made school unbearable for him.
"You believed in me," he said to her. "And you helped me to believe in myself. I was a handful in third grade, and you encouraged me and told me I could do it."
Today, he is an emergency-room physician.
"What a perfect match for his learning style," Levy said.
Chaya Moldaver, the beloved second-grade teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy, analyzed the patriarch Jacob's trait of wanting blessings for his descendants. That, she said, is what inspires teachers to pass the heritage from one generation to the next.
Robin Solomon is up to her second generation of students at Adat Ari El Day School -- and she hopes to retire before the third starts arriving. She said her decades as a kindergarten teacher have taught her that teaching is not magic -- it's simply about loving children, and helping them love Judaism.
And then there's the educator I will always think of as Dr. Powell. Twenty years ago, Bruce Powell was my principal at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, the first of three high schools he helped establish in Los Angeles. He also was founding principal of Milken Community High School, and four years ago founded The New Community Jewish High School, which has gone from 40 students to 270.
Back when Dr. Powell was my principal, he taught us that when you give a speech, you always grab the listeners with a good joke or a story. So I was a bit surprised when he opened with a potentially dry episode in which the sages of the Mishnah try to distill Judaism into pithy bullet points. But then came his own distillation: "It's really all about lunch."
Which was his way of saying so much more. How Judaism is about community (sharing lunch), tzedakah (providing lunch), nurturing others (making lunch) and standing up for your identity (matzah sandwiches for lunch) -- and being willing to ask for a major donation (over lunch) for something other than yourself.
And this event -- this lunch -- lunch epitomized the common denominator of Jewish community through education.
Where else would you end up with a tableful of black hats right next to a table with a woman rabbi?
They eat the same food. They nod at the same words of Torah. They bentsch (say the blessing after meals) together.
Go find that anywhere else -- and I mean anywhere.
And here's a fitting postscript. One of last year's recipients, Maimonides Academy Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, who teaches fourth graders and music, used his $10,000 award to produce a CD for kids. Its title is "I Made This World for You"; each of the 14 songs is based on a portion in the book of Genesis. This selection, along with the follow-up song, "I Believe," based on Maimonides 13 principles of faith, have become hits in day schools across the city, and even the country. As a result, children as young as 3 are now quoting from Genesis and Maimonides.
So great teaching begat recognition, which begat more great teaching. And more recognition. And in the world of teaching, where recognition is not always easy to come by, that's worth writing about.